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Hurricane Irma and why the only thing worse than climate change denial is acceptance

People don’t like to be reminded of their own moral relativism when their homes are underwater.

Climate change denial is not about facts. It is about faith, and faith comes in many forms, including the blackly comic.

This week, as the most devastating hurricanes on record pummelled the Caribbean and the southern United States, Scott Pruitt, the Republican politician and head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, said that “the place (and time)” to discuss “the cause and effect of these storms” is not now.

He spoke with the self-confidence of a man appointed to head the very agency he’d spent the previous decade trying to destroy, and the bluster of one trying to pretend he hasn’t just tripped and fallen over an enormous carbon footprint.

It is overwhelmingly likely that the storms are happening because of climate change. There are other, less rational but more comforting explanations, such as the conviction being put forward by certain Christian evangelicals that this is all part of a prophecy about the end times somehow connected to the August eclipse and what we really ought to be doing is converting more sinners, rather than stocking up on safe drinking water. You and me are not like that, of course. We’re sensible people who believe in science. That’s why climate change denial is different when we do it.

If the middle of the most catastrophic weather event on American soil for years is the wrong time to talk about climate change, then it’s definitely the wrong time to talk about how similar catastrophes have been taking place on un-American soil for some time now without the world showing quite so much concern. People don’t like to be reminded of the ugliness of their own moral relativism when their homes are underwater. They definitely don’t like to be asked why they’re not as upset by the death of 1,200 people by flooding in South Asia as they were about the 70 fatalities in Texas during Hurricaine Harvey that same week. That falls into the realm of “things that are true but unhelpful”.

The propensity for human empathy to fumble in the face of enormous casualty numbers has been well-documented; Paul Slovic, professor of psychology at Oregon University, terms the effect “psychic numbing”. It’s why every article about a natural disaster starts with the story of a single victim, because you’re more likely to care about the death by drowning of one child with a name and a story than you are about a hundred children.

I suspect, however, that there’s a little more to it than that. Right now, Florida is no nearer to where I’m living than Cuba, but the press and BBC are covering the effects of Hurricane Irma on the US much more closely than the aftermath of the same storm in the Caribbean.

I’m not trying to shame anyone for their private prejudices. What matters is whether we let the limits of our empathy dictate our response. It is possible that the climate movement doomed itself from the start by assuming that human beings are rational political actors who can be moved by serious facts rather than hiding under the bed screaming about the Book of Revelations. 

Denial, of course, is one of the stages of grief, and when people face the loss of the simple certainties on which their lives are based, they respond as they do when they lose anything they love. They respond with disavowal, bewilderment, anger, depression – and with bargaining. Of these, bargaining is by far the most dangerous, and that’s where more of us get stuck on the way to the kind of acceptance that might still turn this ocean liner away from the melting icecaps of mutual destruction.

It’s easy to bargain with reality when your own appears unchanged. Yesterday, while people in the Gulf of Mexico were scrambling for shelter from two superstorms, I was eating spaghetti with friends in a chain restaurant in a nice, safe country in northern Europe, confessing a combination of guilt and relief that the worst effects of man-made climate change will not reach us for decades.

This is an awful thought to entertain, so awful that it’s tempting simply to claim you’re not having it, finish your carbonara and avoid the issue. Table it for another day. Decide that maybe Jesus just loves you and your friends and family a little bit more than he loves the millions of men, women and children facing death from heat stress in Indo-China in the coming decade. Decide that maybe you deserve to survive – of course, everyone deserves to survive, but maybe you deserve it a little bit more.

The trouble is that this attitude goes right to the top. A devastating investigation by Evan Osnos of the New Yorker magazine in January revealed how many of America’s wealthiest families are building themselves bunkers and putting escape plans in place for when the world as they know it ends. 

The sort of people who attend Davos did not get there by failing fifth-grade science. They know full well what’s coming down the tracks, which is why they plan not to be standing there when it hits. Whatever happens, they can be reasonably certain that they’ll have access to food, medicine and air conditioning. They inhabit a different planet, so they are prepared to gild their nihilism with the ashes of the one the rest of us still have to live on. The only thing more dangerous than climate change denial is climate change acceptance on the part of those who could, instead, choose action.

The way you may or may not feel in the cowardly corners of your conscience about climate-related catastrophe happening to hundreds of thousands of foreigners far away is exactly the way that the people who could actually stop this feel about you and me. They know that we’re at risk, too. And, of course, they care. They just don’t care enough to seriously inconvenience themselves by going cold turkey on fossil fuels, or putting plans in place to accommodate a billion climate refugees. All of that is going to happen to other people, people whose lives simply matter less. And this time, that includes you and me.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.